This week: We take a look back on the oft-overlooked Atari Force, a pioneering video game-based licensed comic and one of the best-looking comics of the 1980s.
Comic book adaptations and spin-offs of other media often get a bad rap in certain comics circles. Part of that stems from the notion that “licensed comics” are more mercenary than your average comic book, little more than glorified adverts for a film, TV show, video game, novel, or toy. For some, licensed comics represent the medium at its most crassly commercial, derivative, and disposable. Most recently, Image Comics president Eric Stephenson generated controversy with the opening remarks he gave at last year’s ComicsPRO retailers association meeting, where he denounced comic book adaptations of other media as “the absolute worst representation of comics”:
… we talk about being obsessed with expanding our audience, but if publishing lesser versions of people’s favorite cartoons, toys, and TV shows is the best we can do, then we are doomed to failure. Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics. We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation—at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.
There are any number of arguments to counter Stephenson’s hard-line stance against licensed comics, of course, chief of which is that—licensor interference aside—whether or not a comic features a licensed property has little to no intrinsic bearing on the quality of its craft. I have a hard time believing that Carl Barks’ legend-making work on various licensed Disney titles, Joe Kubert’s stint on DC’s Tarzan, John Buscema’s The Savage Sword of Conan, Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Larry Hama and Herb Trimpe’s collaborations on G.I. Joe: Special Missions, and Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are somehow fundamentally flawed, simply because these were licensed works. In comics, the “how”—the execution—is just as important as the “what.” Given sufficient creative freedom, a talented comics creator can make a licensed comic just as good as any original title.
This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t any bad licensed comics out there, because they do exist, and some of the issues with their execution are linked to the fact that they are adaptations from an altogether different medium. Translation from one medium to another is a tricky thing, as some storytelling aspects just don’t carry over. This is especially apparent in licensed comics based on video games, since real-time user interactivity and feedback—the fundamental, defining aspects of the video game experience—have no direct equivalent in comics. Yes, comics are interactive, but only in the sense that the reader mentally fills in the gaps of what happens between panels. Video games are interactive on a totally different level.
Generally, contemporary licensed comics based on video games tackle this cross-media disconnect in one of two ways. The most basic (and least interesting) approach is to simply recreate an idealized “playthrough” of the game as a comic book narrative. Other creators, recognizing that any attempt to recreate gameplay on a static page will always be a poor imitation of the real thing, take the approach of creating the licensed comic as a prologue or epilogue to the game, basically an extension of the narrative cutscenes that play before and after the primary gameplay sequences. In some of the more extreme cases, these comics serve more than just as the video game narrative’s connective tissue—they provide the meat of the lore that, for budgetary, creative, or technical reasons, didn’t make it into the game proper.
These days, just about every major video game has a licensed comic. And despite the naysaying of Stephenson and others who share his dismissive opinions, some of these are actually pretty good. Comics such as Tomb Raider (Image Comics/Top Cow Productions, 1999; and Dark Horse, 2014), Metal Gear Solid (IDW Publishing, 2004), Freedom Force (Image Comics, 2006), The Halo Graphic Novel (Marvel Comics, 2006), inFamous (DC Comics, 2011), The Last of Us: American Dreams (Dark Horse, 2013), Hawken: Melee (Archaia/BOOM! Studios, 2013), and The Witcher, vol. 1: House of Glass (Dark Horse, 2014) have demonstrated that, at the very least, these comics can and do feature the same level of craft as their non-video game-based counterparts, and at their best, they can function as worthwhile, standalone entertainment for readers who may or may not be familiar with the video game source material.
Now, any discussion of the best video game-based licensed comics has to start with DC Comics’ Atari Force and its offshoots. If you’re so inclined, please check out my humble attempt to place the comics franchise in its proper historical context below:
Atari Force (1982)
Kids today probably know video game developer and publisher Atari more from the games industry cautionary tale documentary Atari: Game Over than for any of the games it produced, but before Nintendo took over the world behind the twin salvos of the Famicom/NES and Super Mario Bros., Atari was THE video game company.
A science-fiction comic featuring the eponymous team of space adventurers, the original Atari Force was published by DC Comics as a five-issue miniseries, with the first issue being shipped with early retail copies of the game Defender, the second issue with Berzerk, the third with Star Raiders, the fourth with Phoenix, and the final issue with Galaxian. Now, keep in mind that this was at a time before most video games had cutscenes or even something as basic as fleshed-out narratives to justify the gameplay, giving writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas and artists Ross Andru, Dick Giordano, and Mike DeCarlo a lot of leeway to interpret what was going in on those games.
Defender‘s bidirectional side-scrolling gameplay that mixed shooting enemy spacecraft with rescuing grounded astronauts became the basis of the flashback sequence in Atari Force #1, showing how astronaut Martin Champion saved lunar colonists (including future Atari Force member Lydia Perez) from an attack by an unnamed space fleet.
Berzerk‘s maze exploration and shooting mechanic is interpreted as a tense game of cat-and-mouse, as Atari Force members Martin Champion, Lydia Perez, Mohandas Singh, and Lucas Orion try to catch a masked intruder who has infiltrated their headquarters. (The intruder, as it turned out, was Atari Force security expert Li-San O’Rourke, covertly probing the facility for any weaknesses.)
The space-based shooting of Star Raiders, Phoenix, and Galaxian found expression in a series of three space exploration missions that had the Atari Force going against all manner of space-based and extradimensional threats, although the creative team’s take on Galaxian probably had more similarities to another Atari game, Centipede.
Star Raiders (1983)
The Star Raiders graphic novel by Elliot S! Maggin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez was again loosely based on the game of the same name. Published by DC in 1983 as the first entry in its short-lived DC Graphic Novels line of treasury-sized one-shots, the book expanded on the history of one of the dimensions explored by the heroes in the first Atari Force miniseries. Originally planned as a five-issue miniseries, Star Raiders was condensed into a single volume after Atari canceled the comic’s development deal in the wake of the infamous video game crash of 1983.
Atari Force (1984)
A sequel to the 1982 miniseries, the second Atari Force comic was one of the more popular licensed titles of the mid-1980s, prospering despite Atari, Inc.’s mid-1984 collapse.
Unlike the Atari Force miniseries and the Star Raiders graphic novel, the comic did not have any explicit ties with existing Atari games. With this second Atari Force series, returning writer Gerry Conway would also switch gears from near-future, space exploration science-fiction to full-on, Star Wars-inspired space opera. There were links to the continuity of the earlier Atari Force comics and Star Raiders, but knowledge of what went on in those titles wasn’t necessary for the novice reader to get into the new Atari Force: For all practical purposes, this was an all-new, original science fantasy/space opera comic that just happened to have the “Atari” name slapped on it.
It was this new creative direction, as well as the outstanding art by the team of Spain-born, Argentina-raised penciler Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Argentine inker Ricardo Villagran that would serve as the major draw for readers. Garcia-Lopez and Villagran would create some of their best work together on Atari Force, the comic giving Marvel’s The Savage Sword of Conan a run for its money as the most beautifully-illustrated licensed comic of the era.
Indeed, this second Atari Force series became a miniature, mainstream showcase of sorts for some of the best comics art the Spanish-speaking world had to offer—after Garcia-Lopez left the title with issue #12, he was replaced by Eduardo Barreto, a Uruguayan national who had made a name for himself working in the Argentine comics scene. For many young North American comics readers who had no access to European and South American comics, Atari Force gave the first glimpse of the wealth of comics talent that could be found in Argentina.
The second Atari Force series ran for 20 issues before being cancelled in the summer of 1985. An Atari Force Special one-shot was published in 1986 wrapping up the series’ dangling plot threads, although the only member of the original creative team to have a hand in its creation was inker Ricardo Villagran.
Atari Force would have probably lasted much longer had it not been for its parent company’s continued corporate misfortune. The comic sold consistently well and it enjoyed both fan support and critical acclaim—veteran comics journalist and critic R.A. Jones, writing for Fantagraphics’ Amazing Heroes magazine, described series lead Dart as “arguably the most strongly developed and multi-dimensional female character of the day” and ranked Atari Force as the seventh best comic book series of 1984. (Click here to see the rest of his top ten).
Despite the historical significance of Atari Force as one of the earliest comic book adaptations of a video game and the elevated level of talent involved in its creation, the odds of the comics being reissued, never mind being revived and relaunched, are probably slim to nonexistent due to the unclear situation regarding ownership. The name “Atari Force” itself is an expired trademark of a company, Atari, Inc., that no longer exists (Atari, Inc. was dissolved in 1984 and its assets redistributed to three independent start-ups: Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation, Warner Bros.’ Atari Games, and Mitsubishi’s Ataritel).
The copyright situation regarding the published Atari Force material is equally messy. The indicia in the original Atari Force miniseries, the Star Raiders graphic novel, and the early issues of the second Atari Force series all list Atari, Inc. as the copyright holder. The indicia in the later issues of the second Atari Force series and the Atari Force Special make no mention of Atari, Inc. and list DC Comics as the copyright holder. However, it’s not clear if any of the companies that split Atari, Inc.’s assets between them in 1984 actually acquired the rights to Atari Force.
The good news is that Atari Force back-issues, when they do turn up on online seller sites, don’t usually sell for the greatly inflated prices one would expect given their history and relative rarity. And for the savvy netizen, it doesn’t take a lot of virtual legwork to search out sites that have taken advantage of fair use provisions and the property’s murky trademark/copyright status to share reproductions of the material.
(UPDATE 06 July 2015: Dynamite has recently announced that it has acquired the publication rights to the Atari Force comics.)